Writer Taslima Nasreen, who fled Bangladesh for the West after fundamentalists threatened to put her to death for her views on the Koran, asks if we are returning to an age of barbarism.
We hear, we are at the threshold of the 21st century. But, looking around, at times I wonder, are we heading towards a new dawn or going back to the Dark Ages? Let us put aside the devastations that are being caused by earthquakes, cyclones, floods, droughts, forest fires and the like. No doubt, man, to some extent, has been able to tame the forces of nature, but every year hundreds and thousands of people still die in natural disasters. Let us put aside the killers like cancer, Aids, tuberculosis, etc. They also take a heavy toll of life every year. Malaria has staged a comeback, so has plague. Still, science can be proud of its many achievements in the field of medicine and surgery. Great killers like smallpox and cholera have been controlled, though the latter does show its ugly head now and again. Today one can only be awe-struck by the achievements of science and technology, which have extended their realm even beyond the earth, into outer space. But what is the real situation at the ground level in our planet?
In some parts of the world, millions of people still die of hunger. Though in monetary terms, the world is far richer now, we still find that famines stalk parts of our planet. Millions are underfed and suffer from malnutrition. Millions perish in ordinary diseases because they do not get any medical care. Millions, maybe billions, are illiterate. Women, in many societies, are still considered slaves to men.
On the other hand, Spielberg could re-create the Prehistoric Age, along with its dinosaurs for us. The Hubble space telescope is keeping an eye on the other planets. Press photographers are now capable of photographing the private lives of princes and princesses. Everybody, it seems, is trying to reach the market place. For some, life is a rat race only, and they have little time to think of others.
Even to an ordinary observer, the world today is in flux. It seems the earth is in the doldrums. There is no peace anywhere. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and East Europe, we were told that the rivalry of blocks had finally come to an end, that the world is now unipolar. True, countries in western Europe have come closer. Their age-old enmities are no more. In South Africa, the black majority has got their rightful share in the shaping of the destiny of their nation. Even in West Asia, old enemies are on the path of peace. We hear that the situation is the same in northern Ireland too.
But elsewhere there flourishes ethnicity, religious strife, even tribalism galore. People are killing fellow human beings in the name of race, religion, differences in language and culture. There is no unity or fraternity even among people who are followers of the same creed. We all know, life is precious, but unfortunately, this is just a password in the world today. Men, through centuries, have struggled to find out how to preserve the equilibrium of their countries and societies. Various political theories were floated and practised. Wise thinkers told us that the rule of the majority was the best way to preserve peace and make progress. An alternative theory was preached by the socialists, but even at the heart of these rival theories, man occupied the central position.
Every political thinker discarded violence. Every political system condemned murder as an extension of politics. But alas, political murders did not end with the death of Julius Caesar. Since the Second World War, so many national leaders have been killed by political opponents that it is difficult to keep count of their heads. In South Asia alone, which includes the Indian sub-continent, after independence, almost everywhere, the father-figures were sacrfiiced at the altar of violence. India lost Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi. Pakistan lost Liyakat Ali Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, General Zia-ul-Haq. In Bangladesh we lost Mujibar Rehman, the architect of the new nation. Even today, people are getting killed every day, every hour, every moment, throughout the world.
The long hands of the terrorists have reached into even those countries where conditions till now, were otherwise more or less peaceful. Have we left behind the age of reason? I am very much in doubt. A few weeks ago, a group of people killed themselves in Switzerland. The same thing happened to another group, in far away Canada. I hear they believed in a certain guru or Messiah and sacrificed themselves to fulfil his wish. This happened last year in Texas. A cult leader, David Koresh and 74 of his followers sacrificed themselves in fire. They did not reason, asked no questions, just fulfilled their leader's wishes and obeyed his command. This is the other side of the coin, killing oneself is also murder, just like killing other people.
None of us knows what awaits us as we prepare for a new millennium. Are we living in an age which is more enlightened? With more and more achievements in every field of human knowledge? No. To many peace loving human beings like myself, this appears as the age of terror. Otherwise why should I be here, in this distant land? Why do I need protection even here?
True, fellow feeling is not entirely lost. True, sufferings in one corner of the globe still move others in distant lands. True , most of the people on earth value freedom. They believe in human rights. They care not only for nature, but also for man in distress. They fight back to preserve human dignity and honour. Otherwise I would not be here, amid you, talking to you like a free mind, though at times I feel distressed and see no ray of hope. But at the next moment, when I think of you and what you have done, and are doing for a person like me, I feel proud of my fellow men. It is because of you that, though I find parallels of the dark age around me, I cannot but love this old earth, which is still inhabited by people who believe in freedom; freedom to live, freedom of expression and freedom to die peacefully.